Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654
The continual broadening of Yeats’s scope as a poet and thinker is demonstrated by “The Second Coming.” This poem was first published in what was one of the most important literary magazines of the day, The Dial, in November, 1920, and first appeared in book form the same year in Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
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Some technical knowledge is required in order to understand the opening line of the poem. The “widening gyre” (pronounced with a hard “g”) describes not only the circular, ever-widening course of the falcon’s flight. It also refers to an important aspect of Yeats’s theory of history. Influenced by Giambattista Vico and Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophies of eternal recurrence, Yeats sees history as a cycle of declines and regenerations. Each historical era is replaced by its opposite. Gyres describe the interacting and conflicting eras.
In “The Second Coming,” the end of the Christian era is thought to be at hand. The poem’s title is intended, first, to bring to mind the Second Coming of Christ. Yet this association, with its promises of salvation, gives way to the monstrous image of the “rough beast,” suggesting barbarism. In the New Testament, the Second Coming rescues the faithful from the dreadful conditions that accompany the end of the world. In the poem, the second coming means being condemned to those dreadful conditions. The fact that the “rough beast” is to be born in Bethlehem underlines the enormous changes that the poet believes to be on the way.
Yeats was not the only early twentieth century poet who believed that the historical events of his day suggested profound and disturbing change. The impact of World War I was still being felt in every aspect of public and cultural life at the time “The Second Coming” was written. In addition, conditions in Ireland were deteriorating at a rapid rate. Old political and social forces in the country were giving way to the will of the people. In addition, the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia came as a shocking reminder of the vulnerability of certain social classes in the rest of Europe. Although none of these conditions is mentioned by name in “The Second Coming,” the poem’s themes of violence and disruption are reinforced by its historical context.
The opening two lines of the poem provide an image of cultural breakdown. The falcon represents those forces that function productively only when disciplined. By as early as the fourth line of the poem, the consequences of this breakdown are being described in violent terms. The word “mere” in this line is not used in its familiar sense and should be understood in its original meaning of “nothing but.” Everything that makes life valuable is being drenched in blood. “The ceremony of innocence” refers not to one particular ceremony but is intended to suggest the grace and order of civilized society. Moreover, there is nobody to fight “the blood-dimmed tide.”
Such conditions can only mean that the end of the world is imminent. In keeping with the violent imagery of the first stanza, a nightmarish embodiment of what is occurring reveals itself to the poet. The image comes from “Spiritus Mundi.” This phrase refers to a belief that individual minds are connected to a collective mind, and that the images that occur in one’s imagination are reflections of that greater consciousness. One effect of this reference is to show that the poet himself is vulnerable. The admission of this vulnerability gives “The Second Coming” an urgent, dramatic force, which is most clearly felt in the last line. By concluding with a question, Yeats not only crystallizes the sense of doubt and dread that fills “The Second Coming.” He also draws attention to the dangerous and unresolved contemporary historical conditions. Yeats makes a powerful case for the relevance of poetry as a means of addressing pressing public issues and of preserving historical awareness.